A Review of Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

Oscar Wilde was a poet and playwright. He wrote “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” in 1891. Peter Kropotkin, an anarchist historian and philosopher, influenced his political views at that time.

Helping Within the System:

Altruists want to help the poor. While some people have benefited, the root cause of poverty has not been solved. Many individuals are still suffering, barely able to afford even their most basic needs. Countless others have died from a lack of food, water, clothing, shelter, and healthcare.

So many nameless workers are grinding under the conditions of “hideous poverty, hideous ugliness, hideous starvation” (Wilde 1). Altruists may feel sympathetic but they are unable to “remedy the evils they see” when they rely on the present system (Wilde 1).

A fraction of the population will benefit from their help, but the problem will still persist. “The proper aim,” argued Wilde, “is to try to reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible” (2).

If there are systemic changes, communities will share the “general prosperity and happiness” of what they have made and will not suffer when circumstances become too difficult (Wilde 4).

In a capitalist system, many work to survive, but feel insecure about losing what little they have. They degrade themselves in “absolutely repulsive surroundings” for low wages (Wilde 2–3). But even then, if a medical emergency should ever occur, they may lose the ability to support themselves.

Wilde believed that it was possible to change the system. For him, (1.) public wealth should replace private property, (2.) cooperation should substitute for competition, (3.) and machines should do the hardest work instead of the poorest members of society.

The new system that he proposed must respect the freedom of the individual. It cannot be authoritarian or tyrannical. The poor do not deserve to have their spirits crushed in order to become more obedient workers. Nobody should have to support a system that dehumanizes them for excessive profit.

The poor cannot wait for breadcrumbs from the rich (Wilde 7). They have to find a seat at the table.

Rather than struggling to get by, workers can take control of their work. They can form associations that are creative and voluntary. Whereas in the capitalist system, they would largely be alienated.

“Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him. If there is, his work will not be good for him, will not be good in itself, and will not be good for others. And by work I simply mean activity of any kind” (Wilde 10).

In the capitalist system, a minority of property owners controls a vast amount of wealth. The majority has “no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want” (Wilde 5).

Poor workers have many socio-economic interests in common. Yet they are divided. Their solidarity is undermined in order to keep them from organizing for more just conditions (e.g., higher wages, safer work environments).

The poor are blamed for being unworthy; placated with false symbolic solutions; patronized for their “lower class virtues;” and rejected when they are considered unprofitable to their employers. They are not able to develop their highest capacities. Instead they are subject to externals outside of their control.

The wealthy, on the other hand, have far more opportunities through their ownership of property. Their property “confers immense distinction, social position, honor, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind” (Wilde 13). Those who own material things want to accumulate even more material things. They become “naturally ambitious” to gain the enormous “advantages that property brings,” even if their ownership becomes a burden on them or exploits the most vulnerable in society (Wilde 13). While they dehumanize others, over time, they become dehumanized themselves.

Those in power want to treat the symptoms but not the disease. Focusing on the effects ensures that the system won’t be abolished. The powerful have gained far too many advantages to relinquish their control.

Even so, there will always be people who care for the poor. They may donate money to a reputable charity or feed the hungry, which is admirable. But under the capitalist system, their noble intentions are perverted. Unless it is fundamentally changed, an unjust system will perpetuate unjust conditions.


Question: Is it impractical to restructure society? Won’t there be unintended consequences?

Answer: “It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development. The error of Louis XIV. was that he thought human nature would always be the same. The result of his error was the French Revolution. It was an admirable result. All the results of the mistakes of governments are quite admirable.” (Wilde 58)

Question: You seem to emphasize the importance of the artist in a free society. You claim that artists will prosper when they’re given the opportunity to be left alone and create — especially when they don’t have to worry about public opinion or government censorship. This seems to tie in with your views on the value of Individualism. Can you expand on that?

Answer: “Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone.” (Wilde 58)

Question: Some argue that Individualism is selfish because individuals will just live the way they want to live and not care about their communities. Does Individualism support the growth of the community?

Answer: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.” (Wilde 59)


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